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What Do Anti-Abortion Demonstrators Want (Besides An End To Abortion)?

Last Friday, Washington, D.C.’s blizzard began sometime after the anti-abortion March for Life began, but before protesters reached the Supreme Court. The snow couldn’t stop a Franciscan friar, though. He kept on walking, barefoot, down the streets, singing hymns with other marchers. A long column of students, all in yellow, chanted a few choruses of “Pro-choice, that’s a lie! Babies never choose to die!” and then started up a call-and-response rosary with a bullhorn.

Not far away, I was cracking ice off of the tips of my touch-screen gloves and surveying protesters, trying to learn who had come to the march and what kind of post-post-Roe v. Wade world they wanted to build. I approached every fifth marcher I saw and interviewed 60 people over the four-hour event.1 It’s not a sample I’d publish in an academic journal or anything, but it let me learn more about the movement than I could from staid news reports of how many people showed up.

The majority of the marchers weren’t protesting abortion simply as an abstract, political problem. Seventy-two percent of the people I surveyed told me that they knew someone personally who had had an abortion. A number of times, although I hadn’t asked for any more details, they told me their friends’ names.

I asked each interviewee whether they had always considered themselves anti-abortion,2 and 18 percent said no. Some described themselves as previously being pro-abortion rights, while others said they wouldn’t have an abortion themselves, but hadn’t always felt they should prevent others from doing so.

The crowd I surveyed matched some expectations of the anti-abortion movement (83 percent of people I spoke to were Catholic), but the crowd was younger (36 percent under 25) than I expected and, for a movement often lumped into a war on women, included more women than men (60 percent female).

The marchers were there to protest Roe v. Wade on the decision’s 43rd anniversary, but while they waited to see if the next president would appoint justices willing to overturn the case, I wanted to know what they thought their movement’s greatest tools were outside of the courthouse. About a quarter (14 of 60 respondents) of the people I surveyed thought defunding Planned Parenthood would do the most to reduce the number of abortions performed in America. An equal number decided that requiring women to view sonograms or receive other information about their pregnancies would reduce abortions the most. Closing abortion clinics through regulation (eight respondents) and offering crisis-pregnancy counseling (seven respondents) were also named.

When I asked marchers about exemptions to abortion bans, none of the people I interviewed thought abortion should be allowed to prevent the birth of a physically or mentally disabled child. The marchers were more divided on abortions intended to save the life of the mother — 38 percent thought these abortions should be allowed. Only four people I spoke to (about 6 percent) felt abortion should be allowed for pregnancies conceived through rape or incest.

But what would the world look like if the marchers succeeded and abortion became illegal? I asked protesters what penalties, if any, they thought would be appropriate for women who obtained illegal abortions and the doctors who performed them. Half of the marchers I interviewed said a doctor who performed an abortion should be charged with murder. About one fifth (13 respondents) said a doctor should lose his or her medical license, and seven respondents felt a charge of manslaughter would be most appropriate. Six respondents were unsure.

The attendees were much more torn over what the appropriate penalty for a woman who had an abortion should be. Fifteen respondents said that she should be charged with manslaughter, while 14 marchers said that they didn’t know what the appropriate penalty should be. A little over one sixth (11 respondents) said there should be no penalty for the woman, while nine of 60 respondents said she should be charged with murder. A number of the people I surveyed told me that they felt the woman should be offered or required to attend counseling to help address whatever circumstances led her to seek an abortion. And one woman told me that she wanted the doctor to be offered counseling. “He must be wounded, too,” she said.


  1. Eighty-eight percent of the people I approached were willing to complete my survey. I excluded anyone under 18 years old from my sample.

  2. I asked if they considered themselves “pro-life,” even though Associated Press style didn’t approve! AP’s preferred language is “anti-abortion,” which we’re using in this article.

Leah Libresco is a former news writer for FiveThirtyEight.